The Conversation is fact-checking claims made on Q&A, broadcast Mondays on the ABC at 9:35pm. Thank you to everyone who sent us quotes for checking via Twitter using hashtags #FactCheck and #QandA, on Facebook or by email.
Excerpt from Q&A, November 23, 2015.
I know that since 1976, there have been 70,000 asylum seekers settled in Australia who arrived by boat. Not one of them has been found to have a link to terrorism. – Tasneem Chopra, cross cultural consultant, speaking on Q&A, November 23, 2015.
Since the recent Paris terrorism attacks, Chopra and others have argued that Australians have nothing to fear from refugees arriving by boat.
But others have linked national security concerns to refugees.
In our previous refugee intake, we’ve had examples where people who’ve been accepted as refugees have gone on to commit terrorist acts or plan terror attacks in this country.
So are Chopra and Bernardi right in making those two claims?
The answer is not entirely black and white, partly because of a lack of publicly available information. But based on my knowledge of this area, research and contacting senior police investigators, this is the best evidence available.
Boat vs plane arrivals
The first thing to remember is that the majority of asylum seekers arriving in Australia do so by plane.
It’s also true that of the handful of former refugees who went on to involve themselves in terrorist activities, most grew up in and were radicalised in Australia. Most arrived as children. They did not step off planes or boats in Australia as fully formed terrorists who somehow evaded security checks and slipped into Australia.
The statistic is based on the past 15 years of work in that sector where not one asylum seeker who arrived by boat has been charged with domestic terrorism. Man Haron Monis, the perpetrator of the Lindt Cafe seige, arrived by plane. And regarding the numbers of boat arrivals, this was drawn from stats with this parliamentary library link, indicating around 69,000 since 1976.
I know this is not a very satisfying answer, but we can’t say with absolute certainty that no refugees who arrived by boat have been linked to terrorism. That’s because the police who have investigated the handful of terrorist plots in Australia that have been perpetrated by former asylum seekers didn’t always collect information on their mode of arrival.
It’s also true there’s no obvious, compelling evidence proving Chopra is wrong. As an expert advising the Australian government and courts on terrorism and counter-terrorism, I am not aware of any perpetrators or plotters who arrived in Australia by boat.
Some people who have arrived by boat may have gone on to break Australian laws or commit crimes, but that is obviously not the same as saying they are terrorists.
What about the Lindt Cafe seige, the Paramatta shooting and others?
It is true the man behind the 2014 Lindt cafe seige, Man Haron Monis, was a refugee who arrived in Australia from Iran. However, he did not arrive by boat – he came on a plane, just like most refugees. In fact, he arrived on a business visa.
Whether or not the Lindt Cafe seige qualifies as a terrorist act is also contested. Some experts say it was; others contend that while Monis latched onto Islamic State as his cause, there’s no compelling evidence to indicate that Monis had any confirmed links with them.
Farhad Khalil Mohammad Jabar, the IS-inspired 15-year-old who shot police officer Curtis Cheng outside the NSW Police Parramatta headquarters in October, was of Iraqi-Kurdish background. His family moved to Australia. No reliable evidence has emerged so far to suggest he arrived in Australia by boat.
A spokesperson for Senator Bernardi also referred The Conversation to a plot to attack the Holdsworthy Army Barracks in Sydney.
One of the plotters in that case, Saney Edow Aweys, arrived in Australia as a 15-year-old refugee, but we don’t know for sure if he came by boat or plane. The judgement in that case doesn’t say.
Senator Bernardi’s spokesperson sent another news article on Mohammad Ali Baryalei, accused of conspiring to behead an Australian in a random attack.
Baryalei’s aristocratic Afghan family came to Australia as refugees when he was a child, the ABC has reported.
Again, it’s not clear whether Baryalei arrived in Australia by boat or plane. There’s no compelling evidence suggesting it was one or the other. We do know he was a child when he arrived.
So Bernardi is also correct to say that, in general terms, there are a handful of documented cases of refugees who have settled in Australia being linked to terrorism. These refugees did not arrive as fully formed terrorists who slipped through security measures.
Let’s look at the two claims separately.
We can’t say with absolute certainty that Tasneem Chopra is correct to say that no refugees who arrived by boat have been linked to terrorism. However, there’s no obvious compelling evidence showing she is wrong.
With the current intake of the 12,000 Syrian refugees, there are tight selection processes and comprehensive screening procedures conducted before refugees enter Australia that dramatically reduce any chances of terrorists (or criminals) slipping into Australia.
Bernardi is correct. There have been a handful of asylum seekers who arrived in Australia by plane who we know have been eventually linked to terrorism.
It’s also worth noting what Chopra’s co-panellist, former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis said on Q&A the same evening:
… when you have a massive exodus of refugees, there may very well be a couple of insurgents that infiltrate but it’s neither here nor there. Both the terrorist attacks and the refugee influx are symptoms of the same problem but one doesn’t cause the other.
– Clarke Jones
This is a sound analysis. There is an unfortunate trend in the debates about national security and border security towards both hyperbole and generalisation. This article is careful to avoid these. It examines the publicly available material and ultimately concludes that it is impossible to say whether or not any Australian terrorists arrived in this country by boat. While this lack of certainty may be frustrating for some readers, there are two important points to be taken from this article.
The first is that extremely few – if indeed any – of the people who have arrived in Australia by boat have later had any involvement with terrorism.
Secondly, this article highlights the irrelevance (including to the police) of how terrorism suspects arrived in Australia. In my experience – both in co-authoring a book, Inside Australia’s Anti-Terrorism Laws and Trials, and also appearing as junior defence counsel for Saney Aweys (linked to the Holdsworthy Army barracks plot) in his trial before the Victorian Supreme Court – whether a person arrives in Australia by boat or plane has no bearing on their likelihood of later being involved in terrorism. To the best of my knowledge, the mode of arrival was not even something that we discussed with Aweys during our pre-trial interviews.
The only thing that I would add to this article about Aweys’ background is that he spent many years in a refugee camp in Ethiopia before coming to Australia and being granted a humanitarian visa.
This – in combination with the fact that his arrival coincided with the Australian government’s decision to accept a significant number of refugees from Somalia and that I have no recollection of him spending any time in immigration detention – would suggest that he did not arrive here by boat. This could be confirmed by speaking to Aweys but that is of course easier said than done, given his current detention in a maximum security gaol. – Nicola McGarrity
Have you ever seen a “fact” worth checking? The Conversation’s FactCheck asks academic experts to test claims and see how true they are. We then ask a second academic to review an anonymous copy of the article. You can request a check at email@example.com. Please include the statement you would like us to check, the date it was made, and a link if possible.
A bill that would release the 112 children in immigration detention in Australia will soon go before the House of Representatives. The bill passed the Senate last week, but it could be rejected by a government-majority House.
While it’s widely accepted that detention is bad for child asylum seekers, the long-term effects of that harm are rarely spelled out. Our recently published research sheds some light on this.
So what should members of parliament consider when casting their votes?
Growing brains are vulnerable
The brain has evolved to respond effectively to stressful situations, many of which are normal challenges of everyday life. Indeed, some researchers argue that humans’ extended period of childhood and adolescence (compared to other species) has evolved to maximise our adaptability to the varied environments and social dynamics we traverse. What defines these periods, in this context, is a changing brain, a brain trying to adapt.
This adaptability, however, comes at a cost: growing brains are more vulnerable. Repeated trauma in childhood appears to change children’s enduring hormonal function and brain development, and increases the risk of developing a range of psychological disorders.
Cortisol is often referred to as the “stress” hormone. It plays a complex and wide-ranging role in the human stress and arousal response. Cortisol is also central to glucose availability, blood pressure and immune function.
Alterations in cortisol function are found in people with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but are also a risk factor for these disorders. A recent study found soldiers with lower cortisol output before going to war in Afghanistan were more likely to develop PTSD symptoms after traumatic events experienced during their deployment.
Cortisol has traditionally been measured in saliva, blood or urine, reflecting output over minutes or days. These studies have found either unusually high or low levels of cortisol in children who have experienced maltreatment. This defective regulation suggests a system initially pushed into overdrive, and then overwhelmed, becomes fatigued.
But this changing physiological picture, and our constantly varying levels of cortisol, has led to many inconsistent findings.
What did our research find?
Our new research studied the cortisol levels of 70 nine-year-old children living in and around Melbourne. We recorded these levels from scalp hair to determine their total cortisol output over months.
We found that the number and types of traumatic events experienced earlier in childhood correlated with hair cortisol levels. These events included illness and deaths in the family, and being sick or hurt in an accident. More extreme events, such as fires, floods or being threatened or attacked, were relatively uncommon.
Traumatic experiences in childhood alter the development of brain structures during adolescence. These structures include those directly linked to cortisol production, such as the pituitary gland, as well as others linked with emotion processing and memory, such as the amygdala and hippocampus. Alterations in these structures have been identified in mental health disorders.
Childhood adversity, particularly maltreatment, is associated with increased risk for numerous behavioural problems. These include drug use, suicide attempts, risky sexual behaviour and sexually transmitted infections. The earlier the experience of adversity in childhood, the greater the risk of poor mental health outcomes.
What does this mean for detained children?
Clearly there are differences between the environments of our Melbourne families and those of detained children. But these differences are largely matters of degree.
Children in detention are at very high risk of exposure to physical and sexual assault, family separation, environmental deprivation and forced relocation. They also commonly witness traumatic events affecting loved ones. These experiences roughly double their risk of developing mental health problems later in life.
The more traumatic events a child experiences, the more likely lasting problems will emerge. A recent German assessment of families seeking refugee status found that 86.5% had already experienced multiple traumas involving war, torture and involuntary displacement.
Children entering detention in Australia already have elevated rates of psychological problems. The trauma of detention is likely to compound these harmful effects, which may persist long after the resolution of the immigration process.
Childhood is a sensitive and vulnerable period; experiences of trauma and adversity can produce harm that endures into adulthood. This inescapable knowledge should inform policy on the release of children from detention and remind us of the care and support they will need when they are finally released.
Terrorism’s goal is principally psychological. So, in the wake of events like those in Paris, a good starting point is to refuse to take the bait and become victims to fear.
Such a mindset must break away from simplistic notions such as that another round of “tougher” laws will equate to greater security. The production of muscular, hard-line campaigns camouflage that there is no clear-cut legislative “fix” against terrorism.
Thinking we can destroy Islamic State (IS) via the pressure of the perennial growth of a security state and an intensification of domestic surveillance, secrecy, interrogation and detention displays the machinations of a dog that is content to repetitively chase its own tail.
Terrorism as a tactic
Terrorist groups aim to incite both terror and power-projection. Such deadly tactics also hope to spark an over-reaction that will feed into their propaganda, divide societies, empower recruitment efforts and result in a mis-allocation of energies and resources by targeted governments.
Reports suggest that a Syrian passport found next to a suicide bomber in the Paris terror attacks might have been planted in an attempt to implicate refugees and make people feel unsafe. This points to terrorist movements being highly attuned to the kinds of enduring faultlines embedded throughout different societies and the utility of terror as a deliberate tactic to manipulate such uncertainties and produce disproportionate reactions.
We should also remain aware that a considerable majority of Muslims – in countries such as Jordan and Indonesia – unequivocally reject IS and its perverted Wahhabi theology.
The human factor
The human rejoinder to the Paris attacks is understandable. We feel shock, sadness, anger. The urge to inflict payback. The desire to drop a bomb on something.
This genuine outburst exists alongside the political necessity for leaders to appear strong, decisive and stoic. However, defiant words do not automatically translate to careful, shrewd actions.
The projection of “do something” mandates has tended to lend itself to executive over-reach and a search for quick-fix solutions, like calls for tougher laws to give governments even greater arbitrary powers. This is despite many initiatives having a track record since September 11 of being completely ineffective and counter-productive.
Malcolm Turnbull hasn’t overreacted to the perceived terror threat. EPA/Mast Irham
The Australian prime minster, Malcolm Turnbull, has in his public comments thus far resisted the lure of warrantless speculation and a fixation on a hasty redesign of legal and democratic boundaries.
The media magnifier
The rise of widespread public confusion is another of the Paris attacks’ clear side-effects.
Such instances of shared disorientation have been compounded by a media cycle that too often demands facts be made scary and instantaneous assessments of events take place before information and conditions have been pieced together.
It’s much less dull to hype the terrorist threat and boldly speculate about worst-case clichés such as looming “Australian deaths on our own soil” or indulge in xenophobic fantasies like “not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims”. These shrill appeals to casual bigotry are not only wrong-headed but unhelpful in that they serve to undermine both stability and security.
From a counter-terrorism perspective, gathering actionable intelligence will entail – in part – building trust and working with the general public and different communities to obtain information to disrupt future criminal plots and violent planning.
The dynamics of a prolonged proactive security approach also require additional measures, such as steady efforts to address disenfranchisement among troubled youth.
More broadly, inaccurate declarations of a “clash of civilisations” provide no public value – except to implore citizens who are already feeling shaken and powerless to remain alert and alarmed. Much of the gloomy crystal ball gazing is useless in guiding people’s movements and adding to informed decision-making.
This does not ignore that the world has always been a dangerous, unstable and violent place. Nationalist and sectarian groups – and not just those that are hijacking and defaming Islam – continue to engage in politically motivated violence all over the world. Troublingly, many other traditional state-based or state-driven threats remain a much more serious security headache.
But, we appear to be highly selective about when to collectively tune in or tune out to human suffering and respond to events like humanitarian tragedies abroad.
Soundbites – Paris has been a “wake-up call”, for example – are simply crude political opportunism that helps to spread irrational fear. Instead, the problem is actually the opposite.
Much of IS’s warfare template is linked to deception. People in Australia should not be implored to remain in a perennial state of distress and vigilance.
The security sector does not have such a luxury. But, for the most part, we are talking about highly trained and skilled professionals who work largely behind the scenes and in a methodical and calculated manner. It is also impossible to guard every single conceivable soft target. It will always be about risk mitigation rather than risk elimination.
In a similar light, an unannounced attack by a handful of marginalised individuals on civilian targets is not the work of super-villain “masterminds”. While the suicide bombers might have been motivated by factors such as revenge, desperation, defiance or perceived injustice, they are small-fry, disposable cannon fodder.
Towards a clear-eyed strategy
IS is a group of nihilistic and misogynist gangsters. They have grand revolutionary goals, such as a caliphate that will reach Rome and govern the entire Muslim world. But such desires are based on pretentious make-believe rather than reality. IS military gains in Iraq might be conspicuous, but they are narrow and limited.
Critically, IS and other self-appointed foot soldiers do wish to undermine social cohesion and unity of purpose in lands beyond Iraq and Syria. They anticipate that terror attacks abroad can help to create the conditions to advance the alienation of particular segments of society, creating anger and disillusionment that might serve to enhance their authority, legitimacy and influence.
The hope is that this might translate to galvanising popular support, generating financial support and attracting recruits for future suicide missions.
The bottom line is that terrorism is designed to turbo-charge our emotional buttons. It is not only about violence but the threat of future violence. It can be highly effective as intimidation and propaganda. But we are only compounding problems by hyping threats, searching for extraneous scapegoats and indulging in fear-based decision-making.
It’s been a week since the terrorist attacks in Paris and the hacktivist group Anonymous has further expanded its online confrontation with the Islamic State (IS). Its campaign was originally captured under the #OpISIS banner, but is now titled #OpParis.
While on the surface this seems like an overall positive outcome against IS, given its highly regarded and consequential online presence, the reality is much more complex and nuanced. It demonstrates the risks of vigilante style action being undertaken in areas of sensitive national security matters.
When not to take down IS content
Action in this domain, regardless of its quality and the implications, can be seen as inherently beneficial. But an absence of context, proper understanding and incongruent purposes can make the counter efforts of the state more difficult.
When a government is looking at IS content online, the context varies depending on the outcome it seeks to achieve and for the department or agency involved. In a law enforcement context, IS content can be used to form the basis of a search warrant or a control order, or as evidence in a prosecution.
For an intelligence agency, an IS website may prove to be a vital element in ongoing surveillance, or form part of a broader assessment of an individual or a cell’s behaviour.
Beyond this, even the military may make use of IS online content as part of offensive information warfare targeting.
The distinction here is that the mere presence of IS content, while negative in the discreet sense, is part of the broader apparatus that is IS. It is multifaceted and complex, as is the response to it by the agencies of national security.
It is simplistic to think that merely removing IS content from cyberspace is sufficient, or even necessarily positive in the overall sense. There can often be a greater good achieved by leaving certain pieces of content in play.
This greater good is not supported by the interdiction of people unaware of the broader operations of government agencies, flawed and less than perfect as they may be.
For the public’s safety
The purpose for which Anonymous removes IS content is relatively narrow when contrasted with the public protection purposes of the state.
When a government, in collaboration with those companies responsible, removes online content, it is because it has been deemed both detrimental to public safety and security. It’s also because it’s considered that the content does not serve any other additional purposes, such as those mentioned above.
But Anonymous removes IS videos because IS disagrees with, and acts against, free speech. This presents both an ironic contradiction and also a much more self-interested motivation for Anonymous’ actions.
Tolerating vigilante style action by people affiliated with Anonymous would be an easier exercise if they were in some way representative, rather than a self-appointed vanguard, acting in the name of a public good they have determined to be overwhelmingly important.
When things goes wrong
The actions of Anonymous are also undertaken in a publicity-seeking manner. As further details are revealed in relation to #OpParis, it has been demonstrated that some of the personal details hacked and publicised by Anonymous were inaccurate.
While the state is not free of these types of errors, democratic states are at least accountable to some form of electoral and rule-of-law consequences.
In this heightened political and societal environment in the aftermath of a terrorist attacks, when a group such as Anonymous errs in identifying an individual as an IS recruiter or financier, it places those individuals in substantial danger while remaining largely free of consequences.
This is separate from the fact that much of the process of obtaining the data in the first instance is likely criminal.
While the actions of Anonymous in a range of domains, and in relation to many issues, can be seen as an overall positive, there are some very sensible reasons as to why its followers perhaps ought not to play in the national security space.
The takedown of IS content is generally viewed as being of fairly low impact when governments are involved, let alone when a vigilante style organisation adds additional risks of exposing innocent people, and undermining broader efforts to counter IS.
Perhaps most importantly, it does nothing for the people of Syria or Iraq, or those suffering within the controlled territory of IS.
Levi J. West, Lecturer, Terrorism and Security Studies; Program Manager, Masters of Terrorism and Security Studies